Sugata Mitra – The inspiration behind the Hello Hubs

In 2010, Sugata Mitra, at the end of a TED talk on a revolutionary digital education project called the "Hole in the Wall", proposed a challenge: He wanted to test a simple idea – that with the right tools children in the most difficult of situations, with the fewest advantages, could teach themselves. And he wanted to test it on a huge scale.

Dr Mitra is Professor of Education Technology at the University of Newcastle and his TED talks have been viewed over 5 million times. One of those who watched him online was Roland Wells, a technologist and engineer, based in the USA. At around the same time Katrin McMillan, my sister, was in South Omo, Ethiopia. She saw what lack of access to education or communication meant for a marginalised and poor community. It deprived them of a story, and the chance to record it. It also deprived their children of the opportunity to enter a world which had left them behind. Katrin called Roland, and old friend, to describe the situation. Roland forwarded Dr Mitra’s talk to her with an idea – to take Dr Mitra up on his challenge. Two years later, in October 2013, the charity they founded cut the ribbon on a digital education terminal, in Suleja, a satellite of Nigeria’s capital, Abuja.

That charity, Projects for All (I am a Trustee), is now poised to deliver an international expansion of their own evolution of the Hole in the Wall concept – Hello Hubs. “I feel nostalgic when I see Hello Hub and Katrin’s team in action,” says Dr Mitra, Projects for All advisory board member.

“In the years since 1999 when the first "Hole In The Wall" computer was installed in New Delhi, I have been struggling with how to keep them in working condition. The technology keeps failing, even today. Internet connections are still spotty. The lights still go out. But it is efforts like Hello Hub that will solve these problems eventually.”

Projects for All’s core idea is that communities should have the biggest say in their own development. Applied to education, it recognises the vast unmet need for reliable access to information and educational tools, which communities demand. We (certainly I) have the luxury of arguing about how to teach and what to learn. My professional background is in online education – maths and chemistry – and in my working life I get to test different educational theories with digital tools and tweak algorithms to  ensure the right resources get to the right students. The notion of universal education is never in question.

In many countries the problem is not what children should learn, but whether they even have the chance. When stories trumpet the success of mobile banking across Africa, or the growth of tech and the middle classes in India it might be inconceivable that there is a lack of access to information anywhere in the world these days. But people do lack access, and in huge numbers. Nigeria, a booming African economy with the continent’s largest population, is home to 15% of the World’s out of school children*.  Suleja, just an hour’s drive from Abuja, bristles with 3G mobile masts; there are SIM card sellers are on every corner. But children are missing that tech boom, and often cannot meet their most basic educational needs: access to information and resources. The Hello Hub, our way of providing that access, is based on three principles: child-led, digital, and open-source education.

Why child-led? Dr Mitra described his method as “minimally-invasive education.”  This downplays the necessary organisation and support; adults and educator-figures are heavily involved, especially given the Projects for All remit of community-led development. But the idea of ‘child-led’ echoes Arthur C Clarke’s observation: “Where you’ve got interest, there you have education." And the interest is there. The key is the trust that it will turn into education. The Hole in the Wall and Hello Hubs are built on trust. Children otherwise unused to digital technology and strangers to formal education are trusted to use the terminals, to seek out an education wherever they might find it. As Dr Mitra demonstrated with Hole in the Wall, and as Projects for All is now demonstrating with their first Hello Hub, they have made good on that trust.

But giving free access to a valuable commodity in any community is a challenge, and we learned a huge amount from "The Hole in the Wall’s" experience of this. When access to information and education is rare, and technology a luxury, both will inevitably be monopolised, and by those with power – often dominant, younger men. When Dr Mitra joined Projects for All as an advisory board member, he told us to make part of the Hubs unattractive to those groups. So we lowered one of the benches in front of the terminals, and we asked the children to choose the colour.

As with the "Hole in the Wall", children using our first Hub have hungrily sought out education materials, unprompted. They demand to be given time at the terminals, and have made the Hub in the process a safe place, somewhere they can learn without interference, or competition for network time.

Just as open-source software isn’t unguided, child-led education isn’t unmanaged. Hello Hubs are backed by local communities given real stakes in their construction and maintenance, and policed and supported by "Grannies", both in the Cloud, and in person – another gem of advice from Dr Mitra.

Why digital education? The boom in cheap mobile technology is a means to close the education gap. Digital education is an increasingly redundant concept. Better that we think simply of "education", achieved by the only method which makes location and language increasingly irrelevant. Hello Hubs only use free Internet-based tools and sources. So when we talk about digital education, we are simply talking about education. And when we talk about access to education, we know that the presence or even ubiquity of digital and network technology isn’t sufficient. With digital education we can reach thousands of potential teachers and students simultaneously, and affordably.

Why open-source? We built the first Hello Hub using open-source principles, in which the plans were shared online, months before the build, and then iterated. On the ground in Suleja we again modified our plans, based on what we could procure, and from whom. Carl Sagan joked that to create an apple pie, you needed to invent the universe. To build a Hello Hub, using the community it exists to serve, you need to ensure access to raw materials, skilled labour, technical tools, safe locations, advocates, educators, willing parents and grandparents, and the wider infrastructure of a functioning town. Given this, the notion of anything other than an open-source approach to education would be nonsensical. There is no proprietary, ideal, Hello Hub. There is the community, first and foremost, from which the demand for education and the means to meet that demand, subsequently rise. As Dr Mitra puts it: “Education is a self-organising system where learning is an emergent phenomenon.”

With open-source tools and philosophies, Hello Hubs will emerge, whether or not Projects for All is responsible. And they are. Over the Christmas holiday period, Katrin was contacted by Mark Afolabi, founder of mywhitespaces.com in Nigeria. Mark had, unsolicited, downloaded the Hello Hub plans, read the notes, reviewed the usage analytics, and planned his own Hub to support his community in Lagos.

And this may prove to be one of the most exciting aspects of the Hello Hub project – the incredible interest in the Hello Hub build techniques, plans, and data. The Projects for All team could often barely access the site in Suleja for the men and women who wanted to understand the network setup, who lent a hand to the construction. Many, especially the women, had never used a computer to access information online.

So we have high hopes that Hello Hubs will spring up around the Globe, and we have ambitious plans to make that happen in 2015. But the last word should go to Dr Mitra: “As for the children, they never fail us. They are amazing everywhere. I can say this with confidence, I have now seen them learn almost anything, anywhere  on the planet, by themselves – if the Internet is reliably available, and if we leave them alone. If they don’t fail us, we can’t fail them. So, go, Hello Hub. With all my very best wishes.”

Watch Sugata Mitra’s second TED Talk, the inspiration behind Hello Hubs.

Written by: Duncan McMillan